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Organization without delegation: Informal intergovernmental organizations (IIGOs) and the spectrum of intergovernmental arrangements


The renaissance in the theoretical analysis of intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) has focused on formal IGOs (FIGOs), but many IGOs are subject to no formal treaty and/or have no permanent secretariat. Important examples of informal IGOs (IIGOs) include the G-groups that are the locus of much high-level interaction among states. We develop the spectrum of intergovernmental arrangements to show the wide variation in the formalization of international institutions and theorize when states will choose informal arrangements such as an IIGO over (or in combination with) a FIGO. A paired case comparison illustrates our claims that states use IIGOs when they need flexibility, to protect their sovereignty, to maintain close control of information, to lower short term transaction costs for speed, to minimize bureaucracy and to manage uncertainty during times of crisis. Finally, we examine how institutional choice is influenced by power.

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Fig. 1


  1. We use the terminology intergovernmental organization (IGO) and international organization (IO) interchangeably throughout the paper.

  2. For a conceptual discussion of FIGOs see Volgy et al. (2008). Below we use the more inclusive definition of FIGOs offered by Pevehouse et al. (2004). Volgy et al. point out the important implications of different conceptualizations – for example, on the growth rate of FIGOs and on their impact in diminishing conflict. Finally, their definition of FIGOs increases the analytic difference with Informal IGOs developed below.

  3. “The International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation” by R. Skjoldebrand. Accessed at

  4. We thank Joseph Nye for pointing us towards this example. Note that the need for the INFCE was in part precipitated by the fact that the existing IIGO in the area – the Nuclear Suppliers Group -- had a too limited membership. See also Lellouch (1979).

  5. Helmke and Levitsky (2004) highlight the dearth of comparative institutional research on informal institutions, which they define as “socially shared rules, usually unwritten, that are created, communicated, and enforced outside of officially sanctioned channels.” Informal institutions range from bureaucratic and legislative norms to more elaborate practices such as clientelism and patrimonialism. Informal organizations, however, are distinguished by a focus on the players (including clans and mafias in the comparative context).

  6. The criteria for an IGO in the Yearbook of International Organizations dataset is more inclusive than the COW, but the self-submitted questionnaires should be used with caution because they lack the independent fact-checking of the COW.

  7. The COW dataset does not include emanations—an increasingly important set of IGOs whose creators are IGOs, not states (Shanks et al. 1996). The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) are two important examples. Emanations are theoretically different from IIGOs although some emanations could be IIGOs.

  8. The COW dataset excludes bilateral organizations but they offer no clear theoretical justification for doing so. We include bilateral arrangements in our set of feasible IIGOs.

  9. A useful analogy is the comparison of public and private goods. While no good is perfectly private or perfectly public, many goods can be categorized as closer to one or the other and analyzed accordingly. Sometimes, it is also possible to use the different models to examine different aspects of the “same” good – education and defence spending are important examples (Snidal 1979).

  10. The Basel Committee on Banking Supervision’s most important function remains its role as a forum for members and managing meetings among them.

  11. IIGOs are less legalized and closer to soft law in terms of the relative imprecision of their institutional arrangements and also because they entail less delegation but they may engender fairly high levels of obligation among members. See Abbott et al. 2000 for a discussion of the dimensions of legalization.

  12. Of course, there are informal international organizations (i.e., IOs not IGOs) whose membership is not dominated by states but by NGOs or firms. For example, the Informal Forum of International Student Organisations (IFISO) consists of a multi-disciplinary mix of 27 international student-run organizations with no by-laws, obligations, fees, official spokespersons or officers. ( We also do not include transgovernmental relations (Keohane and Nye 1974) or transgovernmental networks (Slaughter 2004) insofar as those emphasize sub-national connections, whereas IIGOs focus on interstate interactions.

  13. Conference series between states (e.g., the Conference of African Ministers Responsible for Human Development) do not qualify as IIGOs. While a large purpose of these conferences is to allow a broader set of interlocutors—such as civil society organizations—to partake in discussions of global concern, attendees are not members of an organization but rather are invited guests to a discussion. Conferences might later become IIGOs as they gain organizational structure.

  14. Meetings may not always reach a decision, but that is a prime purpose. For example, consider a monetary conference where the goal is to ask whether some macroeconomic policy needs to be adopted or changed: the group members may decide not to change anything.


  16. All FIGO secretariats have a limited form of independence to, for example, make small budgetary decisions or call meetings, but some FIGO secretariats have significant independence as autonomous, permanent bodies.

  17. Hawkins et al. (2006) offer a detailed analysis of delegation to IGOs.

  18. See “The Anatomy of Informal Governance” workshop, Nuffield College, Oxford 14–15 September, 2007. Accessed July 1, 2011.

  19. Alter and Meunier (2006) identify overlapping regimes when “multiple institutions have authority over an issue.” See also Kelley (2009).

  20. Raustiala and Victor (2004) and Keohane and Victor (2011) define regime complexes as the existence of partially overlapping and nonhierarchical regimes.

  21. This kind of organizational competition for resources and influence seems less likely to result from the overlap of FIGOs and IIGOs given that turf wars cannot arise where bureaucracies (in IIGOs) are kept to a minimum.

  22. Custom is often taken as a basis for international law, and international lawyers often imbue it with a stronger normative sense of obligation as being “law.” Here we mean it in a pre-legal sense (as argued by Goldsmith and Posner 2005). Through codification and interpretation by courts such as the ICJ, custom may evolve into a more formalized institutional arrangement that would be located further down the table.

  23. For example, Boehmer et al. (2004) emphasize the varying degrees to which FIGOs are “institutionalized.” Haftel and Thompson (2006) argue that RTAs vary according to their level of “independence.” Both points are indicative of the continuum of intergovernmental arrangements.

  24. Discussions about the definition of a FIGO have focused on permanent, independent Secretariats, and this has usually been interpreted as something that is present or not. But formal institutionalization of an IGO’s Secretariat is a matter of degree. Even within the set of FIGOs, permanent, independent Secretariats vary considerably. Consider some of the less institutionalized FIGOs: the North Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) permanent Secretariat has nine full time workers while the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna employs 27 full time workers. This lies in sharp contrast to the highly institutionalized United Nations system, which employs thousands of full-time workers around the world. and, both accessed on 8/1/2011.

  25. and, both accessed on 8/1/2011.

  26. See Hudec (1998) for a discussion of the evolution of dispute settlement in GATT/WTO and Jupille (2013) for an account of the evolution of the GATT into the WTO.

  27. A special case of an IIGO is when states get together for regular meetings leading up to the establishment of a formal legal agreement or a FIGO (where the group of negotiating states/organization is not yet based on an international treaty). If, when the formal agreement/ FIGO is created, the negotiating group disbands, then we would consider the IIGO “dead” in the dataset. Additionally, we would document a follow-on FIGO organization.

  28. We thank Jon Pevehouse and his research team for sharing their comparison of Correlates of War and the Union of International Associations’ Yearbook of International Organizations with us. Organizations whose members are IGOs and public-private organizations are listed in the Yearbook but not in COW. We excluded them because our IIGO definition requires that members are states.

  29. The “soft” end date of the Concert of Europe is a case in point. The death date of the Concert of Europe is contentious in the historical literature, and different dates indicate different conceptions of it. Schroeder (1994) dates it at 1823, which is when he says the normative consensus behind the Congress of Vienna expired. A.J.P. Taylor (1954) favored 1848. Most observers would agree that the Concert lasted through the 1878 Congress of Berlin but its role was increasingly undercut as the European great powers organized themselves into the Triple Alliance (1882) and Triple Entente (1907). Nevertheless, partly to avoid defining IIGOs by their effectiveness, and especially since the Concert did serve as the vehicle for the 1912–13 London Conference on the Balkan Wars, we date its demise to the July crisis. (Note that the Triple Alliance and Triple Entente are themselves not IIGOs but agreements, involving neither regular meetings nor organizational structure.)

  30. Slaughter (2004), for example, lists a wide range of international organizations in her analysis of transgovernmental networks—including the International Organization of Securities Commissioners (IOSCO), The International Association of Insurance Supervisors (IAIS), the International Network for Environmental Compliance and Enforcement (INECE), the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FINCEN), and the Egmont Group. Ultimately, we filtered out many of these because they did not meet one of our criteria (states as members).

  31. Lipson focuses on informal international agreements (promises that fall short of treaty ratification) and asks why states would choose to rely on these unspoken understandings, oral bargains, and adhere to treaties even after they have expired. Informal international agreements are based on explicitly shared expectations like IIGOs, but they are not accompanied by regular meetings or an organizational structure. See also Aust (1986).


  33. Barnett and Finnemore (1999) highlight that FIGOs can exercise autonomous power after their creation in ways that state founders did not intend and they can gain an insular culture that prides their own technical expertise and standard operating procedures over connections with the external world. States may try to reduce these costs of formal organization by working through IIGOs.



  36. We thank an anonymous reviewer for emphasizing this point.

  37. An excellent example of an IIGO acting as a potential building block is the use of the 2011 G8 meeting to build an interstate consensus on worldwide cyber security. At the time, there was no other focal institution for addressing this important new issue.

  38. There is also little analysis of the interplay between informal and formal security IGOs whereas nascent work has probed the interrelations between IIGOs and FIGOs in trade and finance (Baker 2000; Alexandroff 2010).


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Correspondence to Felicity Vabulas.

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We thank Randy Stone, Nicole de Silva, Meredith Wilf, Deborah Avant, Judy Goldstein, Joseph Nye, participants at the University of Rochester Conference on Informal Governance in International Organizations, April 14–16 2011 and at the PIPES workshop at the University of Chicago, and panel attendees at the APSA 2011, IPES 2011, and PEIO 2012 conferences for valuable feedback, comments, and suggestions.

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Vabulas, F., Snidal, D. Organization without delegation: Informal intergovernmental organizations (IIGOs) and the spectrum of intergovernmental arrangements. Rev Int Organ 8, 193–220 (2013).

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  • International organizations
  • Intergovernmental organizations
  • Informal governance
  • International cooperation
  • Institutional design
  • Soft law
  • Power
  • Flexibility
  • Delegation
  • Legalization
  • G groups

JEL Codes

  • F53
  • F55
  • K33